Walmart’s Same-Sex Benefits Move: Why It Matters

While the company is a late mover on the issue, Walmart's sheer size and status as the largest private employer in the U.S. draws additional attention to its decision to offer partner benefits for its LGBT employees. For organizations with locations in multiple states, the move may be a sign of the way the wind is blowing.

When the country’s largest employer makes a shift on gay-rights issues, people pay attention.

Last week, Walmart announced that it will extend healthcare and other benefits to employees’ domestic partners, including same-sex spouses or partners. And if your association is on the fence about adopting a similar policy, Walmart’s reasons may be worth keeping in mind. More:

“A business decision, not a political decision”: An internal company memo acquired by the popular LGBT blog Joe My God states that Walmart made the move on partner benefits for business reasons. “By developing a single definition for all Walmart associates in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, we are able to ensure consistency for associates across our markets,” the memo stated. A company spokesman offered the same explanation for the policy change to Bloomberg and other news outlets.

The reaction: LGBT groups cheered the new policy. Among the most effusive reactions was one from Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, who once held a job at a Walmart store. “I am moved by my former employer’s historic action that further proves equality is good business,” he said in a statement to USA Today. Meanwhile, conservative groups (such as the American Family Association) criticized the change.

What it could mean: The company’s stance on same-sex partner benefits suggests that, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, it may be less complicated for large organizations with national presence to have one consistent policy across the board rather than different policies in different states. Walmart is fairly late in making the the change (a point the organization noted itself in the internal memo). According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s 2013 Corporate Equality Index, 62 percent of Fortune 500 employers offer same-sex partner benefits.

Walmart is far from the only company dealing with changing ground on this issue: Federal government agencies, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as a number of Native American tribes, have been struggling to figure out the best approach—though in the case of the VA, a court decision forced the agency’s hand.

(Wal-Mart Corporate/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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